Another Year: Mike Leigh’s Heartbreaking Film

By Patrick Z. McGavin
Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–A beautiful, piercing and often heartbreakingly film, Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” manifests his particular talents that blend a clear-eyed, unsentimental humanism with a funny, observant look of the quotidian and everyday.
The new movie is about everything and nothing. Structurally the movie is divided into sections, like chapter headings, marked by seasons in the year, beginning in the spring and moving through summer, autumn, fall and winter.
Like the title suggests, this new feature is about transience that captures with both tenderness and a plaintive sadness the quiet desperation and interlinked fortunes of a family and their associates coping and struggling to maintain some dignity and happiness in a world that is too frequently cold and unforgiving.
Like a lot of Leigh movies, it’s brimming with explosive humor drawn out by the hilarious foibles, contradictions and vulnerabilities of his characters. The British director is often inaccurately described as having an improvisational working style; the fact is, his scripts are painstakingly developed out of collaborations with his actors. The new movie synthesizes the open, anecdotal narrative style of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” with some of the darker threads of “High Hopes.”
Leigh throws a curve right at the start, opening the movie in tight close up as a doctor attends to a depressed middle-aged woman (Imelda Staunton) suffering from insomnia. Those characters turn out to be secondary figures. The looser, offbeat quality of “Happy-Go-Lucky” is the dominant emotional thread of the movie’s often exhilarating opening hour.
The office setting introduces the three primary characters: Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a medical therapist, her colleague Mary (Leslie Manville), an administrative assistant, and Gerri’s husband Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geological engineer. Like “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the new film has no larger plot to speak of. Freed from the tyranny of plot and exigencies of story, Leigh is left to move film organically, moment to moment, scene to scene, echoing and playing off what preceded each movement.
The story, characters and situations grow organically and are connected emotionally to the rashness, tenderness and particular needs of the three leads. Gerri and Tom have a relaxed and comfortable relationship, slightly tempered by some natural parental concern about their son Joe (Oliver Maltman), a lawyer who’s watching his friends settle into adult relationships and marriage as he still remains thoroughly outside that realm.
Mary is Leigh’s most complicated and revealing character. She’s a divorced woman marked by severe contradictions who simultaneously heralds her independence and freedom while her mannerisms, body language and social behavior suggests the very opposite of a woman content and secure in her own identity.
The opening half is layered, observational and at times proves explosively funny. Leigh skillfully negotiates the emotional geography of his characters, mining their fears, trepidations and often deep frustrations at their current lot. It features mirror actions, Mary getting unnaturally drunk and revealing the fullness of her unhappiness and pain during a night spent at the couple that is played against a barbeque party Tom throws for his oldest childhood friend, Ken (Peter Wight).
If the opening movement is sustained by a riotous comic edge that provides a sharp and engaging way to approach the emotional lives of the characters, the balance of the film yields something more intractable and difficult to turn away from, the imbalance and denial of Mary. She’s particularly unhinged by Joe’s emerging relationship with an occupational therapist (Karina Fernandez).
As the deep pain of recognition shifts from the unfailingly human, “Another Year” moves in wholly unexpected, confusing and troubling directions. Leigh works in a very naturalistic manner, but it is couched in ritual involving a birth, a death, a funeral and several more elliptical actions that gives meaning to the action.
Leigh is justifiably celebrated for his work with actors. But he is an underrated stylist. He has a very liquid visual style that he has developed with his superb cinematographer, Dick Pope. From the judiciousness of the camera angles to the sharpness of the color palette, like the shadows that streak a putting green on a golf course or the metallic grayness that foreshadows loss, Leigh shows a sureness of touch and feeling that finds a cumulative power and intensity of feeling.
Interestingly, as the movie unfolds, the story rather than narrowing becomes more open and amorphous. In the final act, Tom’s brother (David Bradley) and nephew (Martin Savage) turn up, their contained expressions and eerie quiet giving way to new forms of revelation and recrimination.
The content deepens the form. The beauty of “Another Year” is the sense of liberation it finally ends with. The movie does not build to a final act of affirmation or easy consolation. It ends, like it began, with a close up of a woman’s face. Everything in between is funny, painful, blissful and wrenching. In other words, it’s life. The poetry of the commonplace becomes something not only worth exploring, but even celebrating and taking advantage of.